Time Out NY
Sept. 21-28, 2000
Isabella Rossellini sheds her glamorous image to play a plain Hasidic housewife in Left Luggage

Sometimes, a certain kind of beauty blows away the "only skin deep" theory. Such is the case with Isabella Rossellini, stunning actor and model, and progeny of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini. Hers is a sort of aristocracy, a radiance that comes from deep inside, and is somehow as gentle as it is undeniable.

Maybe that's why it's a shock to see this Italian icon of glamourknown for her romantic pairings with Martin Scorsese and David Lynch, and for her bewitching role in 1986's Blue Velvet onscreen without a trace of lipstick on her pout.

In Left Luggage, Rossellini plays a Hasidic housewife, her lithe form shrouded in a long skirt, her head covered by a scarf or clunky wig (Hasidic law requires married women to keep their heads covered at all times) and her face free of makeup in nearly every scene. The movie is about an Orthodox family that hires a secular nanny; there is tension in the mix, until the woman bonds with the young mute son and lovingly draws something out of him that his mother (Rossellini) could not.

"In Wild at Heart, I was ugly. It doesn't bother me.... I've had my vanity fully satisfied in modeling."

One thing definitely suits Rossellini, 48, for the role: She shows up at the interview straight from dropping off her two kids at their Manhattan school. The former Lancôme modelwho was dropped after 14 years in 1994 for the younger Uma Thurman wears black pants, a crisp white button-down shirt, a long ivory leather jacket, and almost no makeup. TONY talked to her about Orthodoxy, uptown living and the power of beauty, on which she has some strong opinions. To wit: Through her makeup line, unabashedly named Isabella Rossellini's Manifesto, she hopes to spread her philosophy of beauty: to leave it in the hands of individuals, rather than creating "a standard of beauty that we have to achieve."

Time Out New York: Did you have reservations about not wearing makeup in Left Luggage?

Isabella Rossellini: I've done many other films where I wasn't beautiful. In Wild at Heart [1990], I was ugly. It doesn't bother me, maybe because I've had all my vanity fully satisfied in modeling. I feel fully gratified.

TONY: How in the world did you wind up playing a Hasidic woman?

IR: [Director] Jeroen Krabbé and I are friends of many years. I said, "I am a Roman Catholic, and with a name like Isabella Rossellini, so Italian, I will damage your film regardless of whether I do a good job or not. People will just laugh." But he insisted, he insisted. And I liked the script.

TONY: What sort of research did you do for the part?

IR: They showed me documentaries. We had many, many consultants. It was very funny, because on the set we had so many people checking me. I had to speak with an Eastern European accent, so I had a dialect coach. I had a Yiddish consultant, because sometimes we had scenes in Yiddish. And then I had a Hebrew consultant, and also a Hasidic man - I loved him. And then, in the streets of the community where we shot the film, the women came and talked, and I had tea with them.... So much fun, they were.

TONY: Many women in Orthodox communities feel they have a type of freedom that those in the assimilated world are lacking. What did you learn about this issue?

IR: I can't comment on their lives, or on whether they like them or not. But there was one woman who I particularly loved. Every day she had a different wig. I would see her during breaks, and she'd say, "Oh, you don't say hello to me today?" But she had wigs one day like Louise Brooks, one day like Brigitte Bardot - they were fantastic. So I said to her, "It's a very strict dress code that you have. Does it bother you?" And she said, [Lowers voice] "Oh no, I buy [my clothes] only in silk. They're clinging." [Laughing] Maybe her husband allowed that. Maybe another husband would have said, stop with these wigs, you know? She was fun.

TONY: One reason why Orthodox women cover their bodies is that a woman's beauty is considered to be powerful, even dangerous.

IR: I've thought about that. When you settle into something, you see beauty and style, even in a very severe dress code. I went to see a festival of Iranian film at Lincoln Center, and I was completely taken aback. It was incredible to see how many ways you could wear the chador, and how many ways you can be demure or a femme fatale. It's a sheet over your body that covers you completely, and yet all of a sudden, boom! The individuality comes across, and it's fascinating. I have to say I love that. No matter what you do, the femininity comes across. Yes, indeed, we are dangerous. [Laughs]

TONY: What's behind your not wanting to set a standard of beauty with your makeup line?

IR: [Fashion offers up] a blond, blue-eyed, anorexic 20-year-old and says that's beauty. And then we have to mimic that. The women who try to do that have never really been my favorite type. If I think of the women I've admired, I think of funny names like Frida Kahlo, Maria Callas, Jackie Onassis. There were people who were more beautiful, but I like their sort of style and elegance. And I do think the idea of fashion and cosmetics is to give an indication of elegance. It's about style, rather than beauty.

TONY: You recently moved from Tribeca to the Upper East Side. How's the transition been for you?

IR: At first, I missed Tribeca terribly; I'm such a downtowner. Now, I'm in love with Central Park, but if it wasn't for that.... The museums are great, but you don't go into a museum the same way you enter a gallery. The museums are so big, and you feel like you have to stay for five hours. I would like to go into the Metropolitan and look at an exhibit for 20 minutes, but I'd feel intimidated. And taking a whole day to go through a museum is murder.

TONY: When I was a kid, my friends and I used to pay 25 cents and stay for ten minutes.

IR: Yes, I would love to pay $2 and go in. But they want their $10! I'm not going to pay $10 to walk in and see something for five minutes. [Laughs]

TONY: What do you think is the difference in attitude toward women aging especially actresses in Europe and the U.S.?

IR: Well, I think it's more severe here. And it exists for men; it's not only for women. It's a youth culture, here in America. Catherine Deneuve is still on the covers of Vogue and Elle [in Europe], but we don't get to have our Susan Sarandon, and she is the most successful of the older ones here.

TONY: As you get older, how does that make you feel?

IR: If it gets worse, I'll go back to Europe. It's easy for me!

-- Sarah Goodyear

| Home | News | Ingrid Photos | Isabella Photos | | Articles |

| Links | View Guestbook | Sign Guestbook | E-Mail |